The innovation race

I had breakfast this morning with the leadership of talking about innovation and the subject was the same yesterday morning at breakfast with the Project Red Stripe team at the Economist: six people — from editorial, classified, marketing, data sales, technology — who have been given six months, $200,000, and the freedom to use any content from any Economist property to come up with something new for the magapaper. They made it onto the team by applying and sharing their ideas. Their only instructions: to make it innovative and put it on the web. They say they will know they have succeeded when they present their big idea and get someone saying, “I don’t get this at all.”

I am hearing the smart people in media — those who do get it — talking urgently about innovation. It’s almost to the point where that is the thing the most value, that is the commodity over which they are competing (but, thank goodness, there is no scarcity at work here). I don’t hear them talking as much about getting another new print subscriber — so much for that — as I hear them racing for innovation ahead of the other guys.

The Project Red Stripe team and I started off with a debate about blogging. The Economist is blogging but, in Economist tradition, they are doing so anonymously. I said this is a clash of orthodoxies. Blogs are conversations with people. The irony is that the other side of this debate came from the guy who got on this team by pushing blogging and who acts as the team blogger, Tom Shelley. He defends the Economist voice as a human voice of its own. Fun discussion. We talked about community and they raised provocative, Economistian questions about the fragility of communities and the value. And more.

Afterwards, I questioned Alan Rusbridger and Carolyn McCall of the Guardian in front of the Online Publishers Association about the pace and culture of change. I asked Alan whether he is more worried about changing too much or too little. No doubt, he said, he worried about changing too little. But read his principles again; he is not changing to throw out the value of journalism but to preserve and advance it. At this morning’s OPA, I got into the predictable, well-rehearsed conference tussle with Martin Nisenholtz of The Times — we should take the show on the road — about blogs and MSM, but what it really was about was centralized architecture (the value of coming to The Times, what I now call the Yahoo model) vs. decentralized, distributed structure (going to where the people are; the Google model). The question is how the fundamental model, the architecture of media and information is changing. It’s important to keep in mind that change should not be sought for change’s sake. Nor innovation. But the only way to change successfully as the world changes around us is to innovate. Thus the race.

What makes a week in London so damned exciting for me — professionally and intellectually invigorating — is the competitive race for innovation I see all around here. It has been a great week.

: LATER: Demonstrating the point, Shane Richmond of the Telegraph — with whom I breakfasted three days ago (video when I get near good bandwidth) — notes Rusbridger’s speech about shifting the Guardian to 27/7 preeminent-web journalism and argues that they got there first:

The Guardian will be following us into integration. . . . Alan Rusbridger’s statement to staff yesterday contained the ‘draft principles of 24/7 working’. Almost all of them are already in practice here, where we work on a ‘web first’ basis.

It amused me. These guys are all rushing to innovate first. That is healthy for newspapering, for no matter who brags about starting it, good ideas are good ideas and if someone does it first others will quickly follow. And as I said above, innovation is not a scarce resource. So have at it. If we’re smart in America, we’ll watch and copy, too.

: LATER STILL: Just got a link from the Economist Red Stripe team to their invitation to submit ideas to them. That openness is smart. The pity is that the damned lawyers got to them with dreaded terms & conditions, which makes it quite unappetizing to submit things to them on their form, giving up rights and your first born. I’d suggest that a better way to share is openly on your own blog, which they are free to read and to use as inspiration and should still — as they will with their form — give credit where it is due. Indeed, if the idea is open, so will the discussion be and any good idea can get even better. If you want to innovate, follow Shakespeare’s advice: Kill the lawyers first.